View from the Top

FirstNet is delivering more than we imagined

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When Congress established FirstNet in 2012, many officials were worried that it charged with executing a big task with too few resources for a government agency to deliver. However, it now appears that FirstNet is delivering more than most imagined was possible.

In addition, AT&T has committed to a service-level objective of 99.99% availability to FirstNet’s subscribers (FirstNet RFP § C.5(7)). The RFP does not specify exactly how service providers were to achieve 99.99% availability, leaving it to the provider “to determine the best ways to achieve that objective” (FirstNet Q&A Update, at 3).

Fortunately, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) issued a lengthy report on proposed methods for ensuring public-safety grade service for broadband networks, on which FirstNet’s Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) consulted. The NPSTC report provides valuable guidance on several ways that FirstNet—through AT&T as its contractor—can provide first responders reliable service, which could include infrastructure hardening, network redundancy, application and spectrum redundancy, or other means. 

FirstNet subscribers will have nationwide access to the FirstNet network

FirstNet’s mandate is to provide a broadband network capable of supporting public-safety users anywhere in the nation. This is an enormous challenge. In fact, cellular carriers generally discuss their nationwide coverage in terms of population, not geographic, coverage.  That is because a significant portion of our nation’s geography is either uninhabited or very difficult and expensive to serve.  Nevertheless, AT&T has agreed to cover more than 99% of the U.S. geography by combining the Band Class 14 deployment and its commercial wireless LTE network with rural telecommunications networks, deployables, and satellite technology. 

More specifically, FirstNet (through AT&T) plans to achieve nationwide coverage in the following ways:

  • First, AT&T will deploy Band Class 14 spectrum on more than 40,000 cell sites nationwide, including deploying in some rural areas where it currently does not have coverage.
  • Second, FirstNet expects AT&T to enter into agreements with third party providers, whether cellular, fixed, or satellite, that can expand its coverage in areas where AT&T does not have facilities.  In fact, the RFP specifically directed that bidders explain how their proposals would integrate existing infrastructure, with a particular “emphasis on assets owned and operated by rural telecommunications providers” (See FirstNet RFP § C.5(12); 47 U.S.C. § 1426 (b)(3)). Partner providers undoubtedly will be an important strategy for FirstNet in reaching areas in rural and hard-to-serve areas.
  • Finally, FirstNet expects AT&T to utilize deployables—such as cells on wheels or cells on wings—either to ensure coverage or provide additional capacity during emergency situations (See FirstNet RFP § L.3.2.1.2.4.4). The suggestion that AT&T exclusively will use deployables to meet its rural milestones seems far-fetched. Although deployables are an excellent asset for expanding or replacing coverage on a temporary basis, they are not a permanent alternative to fixed and mobile networks, and I am unaware of any carrier that uses deployables in this manner. Furthermore, to date, 20 states and territories have elected to have FirstNet deploy the radio access network within their states—an election made only after a review of FirstNet’s (and AT&T’s) deployment plans, including rural deployment plans. It is hard to imagine that states would opt in to the FirstNet network if proposed rural coverage was lacking.

More than we had imagined

When we envisioned FirstNet, we were worried that it was too big a task with too few resources for a government agency to deliver. FirstNet, however, took the few parts it had and turned them into a much bigger whole.

Congress supplied FirstNet with 20 MHz of spectrum for FirstNet’s public-safety subscribers’ use, but first responders will now have access—on a prioritized, and later preemptive, basis—to AT&T’s entire commercial network, with its vast and deep trove of spectrum nationwide. And, while Congress authorized FirstNet to receive $7 billion to fulfill its mandates, AT&T has pledged to spend $40 billion on deploying the FirstNet network.

Of course, the proof will be in the actual performance. FirstNet has an important role in overseeing the contract and holding AT&T accountable for delivering on its commitments. Right now, however, it appears that FirstNet is delivering more than we had imagined was possible.

Anna M. Gomez, partner in Wiley Rein’s Telecom, Media & Technology Practice, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

A-nony-mouse (not verified)
on Sep 15, 2017

I love Fairy Tales. Two weeks ago there was a First Net presentation in Prince William County, Virginia, specifically Nokesville, Virginia, only 31 miles from Washington DC, and the participants that attended bringing their AT&T cell phones, had no cell coverage. To me that speaks volumes. On another note, would anyone care to guess the number of Cell Sites on Wheels COW's (won't include Cell Sites on Wings as no one uses those yet) it would take to provide First Net service in the disaster areas of Houston and Florida? A hundred? A thousand? Several thousand? And would AT&T park all of those Cell sites and maintain to await the next disaster?

on Sep 17, 2017

Yes - View from the top. Why is it the folks at the top always think they're doing great things? FirstNet/ATT has done what exactly? Other than pat themselves on the back, they have managed to shun what they set out to do. Rural...nada...emergency service to the recent hurricanes...hmm not so much. FirstNet and ATT have managed to close out anyone outside their favorite vendor list. This is only the beginning of the boondoggle.

on Sep 19, 2017

Great article Anna. Regarding your statement "Congress provided $7 billion to cover network costs, state planning grants, opt-out state grants, and FirstNet’s administrative expenses", I would add that this money was not taxpayer funded, and that the entire $7B came from the auction of PCS and AWS-3 spectrum to wireless companies.

on Oct 11, 2017

I have not seen or heard anywhere what the subscribers costs will be. Will it be a recurring cost or charged annually as Gov't budgets in last few years have shrunk and costs( Labor and equipment)have skyrocketed. FirstNet right now promises the world but can it really live up to the hype...Only time will tell...

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